Pop quiz, veggie heads. Rutabaga or turnip? Which is which in the above photo?
Decided? The bigger one is a rutabaga (right) and the smaller guys are turnips (left). If you correctly identified these specimens, then advance to Veggie Challenge #2: the radicchio vs. escarole blind taste test. According to Mark Bittman in his encyclopedic How to Cook Everything, an incredibly useful recipe resource that will save you hours of Internet filtering: "If you can tell the difference with your eyes closed between radicchio (seven dollars per pound) and escarole (fifty-nine cents a pound), you deserve a Julia Child award for Most Sophisticated Palate."
Incidentally, Bittman has a new book out called Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, which picks up the gauntlet that Michael Pollan threw down with The Omnivore's Dilemma (changed my life) and In Defense of Food (preaching to the choir for me at this point but still good) by combining the discussion of our bloated food system with practical guidelines and recipes for how to eat more sustainably and healthfully without fetishizing your food objects and spending your whole paycheck on two ears of corn and a lamb sausage. This book review by Laura Miller at Salon.com is worth reading not only for its use of the bizarrely intriguing term "snow jobs" (applied to diet books) but also for the way it aptly characterizes Bittman as a kind of everyman's foodie, the Joe Sixpack love child of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, one might say.
Returning to the veggies at hand, if you failed the quiz, get yourself to your next farmers' market or produce-heavy grocery store and examine the rutabagas side-by-side with the turnips. They aren't too different, but these root vegetables do belong to slightly different species, Brassica rapus (turnip) and Brassica napus (rutabaga). Turnips come in both Japanese and French varieties, the former round, white, and cute, the latter, purple-tinged and with a more tapered end (the ones pictured here) and are available pretty much all year. Rutabagas, on the other hand, hit their stride in the winter months, becoming sweeter in colder weather, and are generally deep purple and yellowish with rougher skin and tougher "meat" than the more delicate turnip. I'd put my money on the rutabaga in a street brawl.
Provenance gets a little more colorful with the rutabaga, which is thought to be a cabbage-turnip love child——there's a possible analogous loop back to Bittman somewhere in there but I'm in no mood to dig for it at the moment——originating in 17th-century Bohemia. After that, this starchy staple gets associated with Sweden, nicknamed "swede" in Commonwealth nations, while "rutabaga" derives from the Swedish "rotabagge," meaning "root ram." Yes, root ram. It did just get better. Lest I overwhelm you with excitement, rutabagas/swedes/root rams are also known as "snaggers" in northeast England. How did I get so knowledgeable? By surfing here and here.
If you're wondering how to cook these earthy creatures, let the potato be your guide. I would roast them sliced up, maybe peeled, tossed with salt and olive oil, at 375°F for about 30-40 min. until browned around the edges and soft in the middle, or I would simmer them in a soup. Below, I made a gratin with one layer each of turnips, potatoes, and rutabagas. I had the rutabaga layer on top, but next time I would make it the bottom because it's tougher than the other two and so less inviting as the first bite into your mouth.
Turnip, Rutabaga, Potato Gratin (inspired by the recipe from Chez Panisse Vegetables)
Preheat oven to 375°F. Get together a handful each of turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes, enough to make one or two layers each in a 9-in. round or 9x12-in. baking dish. Wash and peel if you don't like skins or they're too scaly. Then slice turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes into thin, 1/4-in. rounds, and layer them in the dish as below. Season each layer with salt and pepper.
I must confess that my final product in this instance came out a little funky, since I ran out of milk and got all MacGyvered out by using sour cream swirled with salted water. I also ran out of patience and energy while slicing the larger rutabaga, which ended up in savagely chopped, irregular blob shapes. I trust that yours will be much more pleasing.
Note: This post was inspired by a debate I had with an always friendly and gracious cashier at Bi-Rite over whether my purchase was a rutabaga or turnip (I was right; it was a rutabaga, though I was helped by the signage when I picked it out). Bi-Rite Market is a neighborhood grocery store in San Francisco's Mission district that specializes in organic and local products and that I usually denounce for its high prices, though its local produce is actually surprisingly affordable. Also, they're always super nice when I ask really specific and probably annoying questions about cuts of pork or call up and have them check on exactly what kind of beets are in stock and at what price.